These days, solar is one of the most popular words in the green lexicon. You hear it everywhere, with most of the talk focusing on the increasingly large solar power plants that are now being built. New designs have dropped the price of large scale solar electricity generation by over 80% in the last 25 years to a level that is now closing in on standard grid prices. Factoring in government subsidies puts solar over the top and has motivated the current boom in planning and construction. For the first time, solar energy is being taken seriously as a potentially major power source.

But there is another side of solar energy that continues to capture the public’s imagination in ways that large industrial size power plants simply can’t. It’s the grass-roots development of business and home size power generation systems that seem to tap into the average American’s desire for personal energy independence, a freedom from big power and the grid’s tentacle-like hold on the individual. This usually takes the form of two fundamental solar technologies: solar thermal panels used for heating water or air, and solar photovoltaic panels used for the direct on-site generation of electricity.

Solar thermal systems are one of the simplest uses of solar energy, and have been around for a long time. They usually consist of little more than a solar heat collector, consisting of a black colored material designed to heat up by absorbing the suns rays, and a way of transmitting that heat to circulated water or air. Heated water can be used to augment a hot water supply, and heated air can be used to heat a home or building. Hot water systems are most common, and, depending upon where you live, such systems can reduce hot water costs by 50% to 80%, recovering the initial investment within a few years. The use of solar thermal collectors is greatest in Asia, in places like China and India, with Europe a distant second. The U.S. is far down the line, with less than 5% of the collector space of Europe.

Photovoltaics, the conversion of sunlight directly into electrical energy through the use of special materials, is technologically more complex than solar thermal systems, but is currently the world’s fastest growing energy technology, with production doubling every 2 years. The cost of photovoltaic systems has dramatically decreased over the years, and it is now considered likely that the energy costs of photovoltaic systems could roughly match the energy costs of fossil fuel systems within 10 years (and that’s without subsidies.) The leading countries in photovoltaic systems are Germany, Japan, and the U.S.

Below are a few publicly traded stocks directly involved with solar power production, both thermal and photovoltaic.

• Akeena Solar, Inc. (NASDAQ CM: AKNS)
• Ascent Solar (NASDAQ: ASTI)
• DayStar Technologies, Inc. (NASDAQ CM: DSTI)
• Energy Conversion Devices, Inc. (NASDAQ: ENER)
• Evergreen Solar, Inc. (NASDAQ GM: ESLR)
• First Solar, Inc. (NASDAQ GS: FSLR)
• Solar Enertech Corp. (OTCBB: SOEN)

Solar Energy Initiatives Inc. (OTCBB: SNRY) is one of the best examples of the grass-roots approach to solar, focusing on individual residential and commercial solar projects. SNRY is committed to reducing the world’s dependence on fossil fuels by selling and installing thermal and photovoltaic systems through one of the fastest growing dealer networks in the U.S. Photovoltaic systems can be tied into the overall power grid, allowing surplus electricity to be sold back to the grid, and battery backup can provide power when the system is down. They even offer systems that can be hooked into other energy sources, such as wind or gas-powered generators, providing power at night. Given that the market for such products will only increase as costs continue to decrease, companies like SNRY stand to become big players in what will no doubt be one of the 21st Century’s biggest industries, grass-roots solar power.

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